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By: Patricia Ann Chaffee

Diane FaschingHands Combines HumanTalking with Diane Fasching, she will tell you that she lost her husband twice, once when Parkinson’s Disease began to get progressively worse, and again five years later when he finally died. His death created a sense of relief for her, accompanied by a longing for the partner she had made a life with for 45 years. She turned that longing into a pursuit and passion for raising 1.5 million dollars to support research and a cure for Parkinson’s.

Diane and Jim were brought together in 1965 by an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) computer match program long before Match.com or eHarmony was a way to find your soul mate. Jim was getting his Ph.D. in chemistry and Diane was in the nursing program.

“A girlfriend and I sent in three dollars and our profile. Jim said he picked me because I had a French name- Bernier. It was love at first sight. He was a big blonde, blue eyed German; like a teddy bear.”

They married in 1967 and in 1969 they moved to Rhode Island to make a life together, adopting three month old Nathan whom Diane calls, “a gift from God.” Jim was the chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Rhode Island for 10 years and a tenured professor for 35. They had similar interests enjoying travel, food, religion and reading. They traveled a lot throughout their lives together, inspired by Diane’s parents. “My Dad died when he was 54. He always said when he retired he would do this and that. I learned to take advantage of every opportunity.” And she did, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary with a trip to Ireland, returning home on the Queen Mary II. Little did she know it would be her and Jim’s last trip together.

We had a good compatible life,” says Diane. “In a way, we were both introverts in people professions, and we just enjoyed being in each other’s company. We had a really, really good relationship.”

Three months after they were married, Jim became critically ill and Diane realized that she needed to take care of herself and not count on him to take care of her. He recovered, but that experience shaped the rest of her life as she pursued a career of her own. Friends call her strong and empowered and Jim encouraged that in her. Although she had studied nursing, it was organizational training and development that piqued her interest. With a Bachelors degree in social psychology and a master’s in organizational development, she worked with Texas Instruments, doing management training which required worldwide travel. She later became the first female vice president at Gilbane Construction Company in Providence, where she established Gilbane University, a training and development department. Diane retired in 2010 but continues working with Gilbane on a very part time basis, and she loves every minute of it.

Diane and Jim Fasching and familyJim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was 55 years old, and retired from URI in 2007. Shortly after their trip to Ireland, Jim fell and they sold their tri level condo and moved into an independent living facility. The had a two bedroom apartment with cleaning and meals provided as well as a cocktail hour and opportunities for social activities that allowed Jim to continue having greater independence. But Diane could feel her soul mate slipping away.

“The last five years, there was steady deterioration,” says Diane. “I lost my mate. He could hardly walk and needed my help with everything. He said to me, ‘You’re getting the short end of the stick. I feel so sorry for you.’ Conversations were no longer intellectually stimulating. His world had narrowed. He was not the companion I had when he was healthy.”

When Jim died in January, 2013, Diane found comfort and companionship among a group of other women who had also lost their husbands, and they all knew each other from the URI Chemistry Department. The Chemistry Widows club was born and meets about every other month for lunch or dinner out. Roni Meyer, Phyllis Brown, Virginia Rosie and Diane helped each other when they needed it most, and they have strong connections.

“What’s nice is that we know each other’s husbands,” says Diane. “We can talk and support each other and refer to our husbands and they have anecdotes and stories to share. Phyllis and Rosie are 92 and 87 and give a lot of guidance, and they are living vicariously through our (Roni and Diane’s) travels and adventures.”

Not wanting to spend her wedding anniversary alone that first year she looked ahead and scheduled the first trip she found for the dates she wanted to be busy. It was a French river cruise to Nice, Provence and Paris. Off she went traveling alone. She met four women, one whose husband had died from Parkinson’s Disease. The five have remained friends and have taken subsequent trips together.

“It’s like another little support group. It (groups) validates what you are going through. They don’t think you’re crazy. Grief erupts when I least expect it. They help and understand. They have a deep understanding of the loss and we can talk about everything. They know it’s real and okay and the fact that we can talk about it is such a help, such a relief. We know we can journey on.”

Diane has been involved with hospice for more than 30 years, helping to start Hospice of Washington County in 1982 before it merged with the larger Home and Hospice Care of Rhode Island based in Providence. Jim was in hospice care when he died and Diane continues to serve on its board of directors as well as in other roles.

About six months before Jim died, they were approached by a friend who was raising money for the Aronson Chair for Neurodegenerative Disorders at Butler Hospital in Providence. Three million dollars was needed to fund this chair that would support the work of Dr. Joseph Friedman, a leading expert on Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders and the hospital’s chief of the Movement Disorders Program. Dr. Freidman was the first recipient of the chair and had worked extensively with Jim and Diane. They agreed to tell their story hoping to spread word of the doctor’s good work and need for funding. When Jim died, Diane requested that donations be made to the fund in Jim’s memory.

“I hate fundraising. It’s the last thing I want to do. I just despise it. But this was wonderful to have a cause for Jim. I became a walking encyclopedia about Parkinson’s. We raised 1.5 million dollars. I just poured my heart and soul into it. And last June we inaugurated the chair. We have lots more to raise but we raised enough to launch the chair. It was such a meaningful endeavor for me to do this for Jim and for Jim’s neurologist who was so good to us.

It was really wonderful to have a cause that created a memory of Jim, which kept him alive. That has helped me a lot, even though I hate fundraising. I took a deep breath and said, “I can do this.” It really helped me to find some meaning out of the loss. The focus and the knowing that by raising this money I would keep this neurologist and all that research for Parkinson’s, helping people in Rhode Island. I thought, we just can’t lose this. I did it so other people could benefit from his help.”

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